Summer Storms and Stories

Summer storms can come up on you quite quickly and silently in our part of the world.  This one had been threatening us the whole day.  Although the air temperatures had been very reasonable, it had also been quite humid, and the clouds floating overhead looked distantly menacing.  The air was unstable!

It was later in the evening that I noticed that it was turning unexpectedly dark in the house. I slid open the blinds in the living room to notice that the sun had finally given up its struggle to penetrate the clouds, and that the sky had turned ominously dark. It was now filled with low black malevolent clouds swiftly scurrying across its expanse to some unknown destination. It had not started raining just yet.   It was a camera moment.  I found myself standing on the furniture on the deck taking pictures of the drama unfolding in the skies.  I can never get tired of this spectacle.  Can you see what I saw?  There are stories to be told behind these pictures!

HAIR ON FIRE
HAIR ON FIRE
THE TEDDY BEAR
THE TEDDY BEAR
THE SCARY FLYING BOY
THE SCARY FLYING BOY
THE FURIES
THE FURIES

Is There a Concept of Having Too Much Technology

Some inventors from Airbus were recently granted the following patent.

If you follow the link you will see that the patent is essentially for the design of a passenger aircraft that can travel at speeds of up to Mach 4.5 using certain advanced technologies.  The invention contemplates an aircraft with three different kinds of engines for three different stages of flight.  The first engine type would be used for liftoff of the aircraft, the second would take it up to the altitude that it is supposed to fly at, and the third would let it cruise as speeds that border on the hypersonic. Although I have not read the patent,  I suspect that the innovation that is being claimed here is the single piece of equipment (i.e., the aircraft) being designed to work with the three engine technologies in three different stages of flight, and that the innovation is not in the inventions of the engine types themselves, although there could be some optimization/modification of the engines being contemplated for the application at hand.  There also ought to be some innovative ideas related to the shape of the aircraft and the placement of the engines.

Of course, filing patents is all about putting ideas that you consider implementable on the record and being acknowledged as the person who “owns” the idea, but it does not necessarily imply that the patents have been really implemented or are implementable in a practical sense in the near future.  In my past history, I have been fortunate  to have worked, in most cases with other people, on many concepts that have been patented, some of which have made it into real implementations, and many that have not.

In the case of this particular patent, I have my serious doubts about the design becoming reality in any practical sense for the purpose of moving passengers.   Factors that make me a skeptic include the development costs, the cost of the aircraft itself, its efficiency in terms of the cost of moving each passenger per mile, and finally the real need in our world for this kind of technology today.  In many cases patents are filed purely as a defensive measure, to let people know that you got the idea first, or to serve as a negotiating tool with your competition.  That having been said, I cannot completely discount the possibility of somebody somewhere convincing a military organization somewhere to spend billions of dollars for the purposes of building something based on this patent that improves our capability in the realm of waging war and killing people.  You do not have to look too far to see this kind of foolishness going on today. There is also a new field of commercial space flight that is emerging these days, where paying passengers can be given rides into space, for which some of this technology may be applicable. But if this idea becomes successful in that realm, only the super rich who can afford to pay humongous amounts of money for one-time thrills will be able to afford it.

People might argue that my viewpoint regarding the practical use of this technology is typical of those who have no real vision for the future.  After all, most of the technology that has been developed that keeps the world going today had a cost associated with it, and if people had not invested in these technologies, we would not be where we are today in terms of capabilities, lifestyles, convenience and comfort.  But how much of convenience and comfort does a human being really need?  There is also the trickle down factor to be considered, where technology that is developed for one limited scenario bleeds into more general usage.  This is particularly true about innovations that have come out of the space program that have found their way into every day use.   Fair enough!  But, at the same time, the innovation that comes from the space program is considered useful all in itself even if there were no immediate secondary benefits.  This is because we human beings want to know more about the Universe we live in.  We want to advance our knowledge.  Can some similar case be made for the benefits of developing of a passenger aircraft as contemplated in the patent?

We know that the concept of a super-fast aircraft did not work out from an economic perspective in the case of the Concorde (which was also a relatively much slower aircraft).  There is even the possibility that new aircraft technologies that have been introduced recently can end up not being successful in the long run.  Aircraft such as the Boeing 787 and the Airbus A380 are huge risks for their manufacturers, and it is quite possible that the companies may not even recoup their expenses over the lifetimes of the aircraft. The aircraft being contemplated in the patent would cost much more to develop, purchase and operate.  All things considered, will Boeing or Airbus even attempt to build a passenger aircraft that travels this fast?

Regardless, even if there was enough of a motivation to try to develop an aircraft as contemplated in the invention, and even if there were enough people willing to pay for flying in the aircraft so that a profit could be made in spite of the monumental developmental and manufacturing cost, what kind of real world scenario really demands/needs such a capability as far as speed is concerned?  Most leisure travelers are unlikely to be able to afford to fly such an aircraft.   If at all, this could turn into a business tool, a military boondoggle, or a toy for rich people. (I believe that when it comes to conducting business, we are definitely capable of coming up with some new reasoning for needing to use an aircraft of this type, finding a way to justify the cost based on what is likely to be some kind of hokey cost benefit analysis.  After all, there are a lot of companies today that still think it makes sense to own and use private luxury jets.  This is how business works.)  In my mind the above scenarios would amount to the use of technology just because it can exist and not because it is necessary.  Basically this would be about spending without having a good reason to do so.  What good will come out of any of it?

There is some commonality of this scenario with the story of a lot of the technology being developed in recent years in the field of electronics and communications.  The significant driver for advancements in this field is entertainment (perhaps it actually all starts out with porn).  Companies want to outdo their competition in this business, so that people with money to burn (and sometimes even people who cannot afford it) will try to buy their product.  A lot of resources of all kinds are spent in this regard, and the primary motivation is creating wealth and putting money into the pockets of those involved.  This is also my story, having worked for many years in the industry to make a living by advancing technologies for the purposes of delivering entertainment. I suppose there is nothing wrong with all of this.  This is the way capitalism works.

How much of the impact of new technologies really trickles down to the people whose lives really need to be improved? I have a lot of doubt in this regard about a lot of the stuff that is being worked on today. As I grow older I have more and more difficulty coming to terms with the development and use of technology just for technology’s sake.  I hope that the aircraft described above just remains a concept in somebody’s mind.

A Holy Place

I am trying to find a way to describe the experience I have when I head out on my run on a late afternoon and enter the woods behind the elementary school near my home. It is difficult to find the words to express what happens to my state of mind at this point.  I enter the trail into the woods from relatively open space next to the school and the next thing I know is that I am in a space that leaves me transformed in mind and spirit. All of a sudden I find myself surrounded by the tall trees that form a green canopy; trees that let the sunlight filter in through in random spots to light up random leaves on random trees and plants, and random spots on the forest floor; trees that also provide a deep cooling shade that envelopes you.  All of a sudden one feels at peace, and at the same time both relaxed and energized.

Being an engineer by training, my thoughts have been turning analytical at this point in time.  A unique aspect of this experience is that my mind is impacted in the same manner regardless of how many times I repeat the routine.  Why is this remarkable, you ask?  It is notable to me because my general observation is that experiences tend to be more exciting when you go through them for the first time, but if you repeat them often enough, the novelty wears off. Even though you might continue to enjoy the experience, things feel a little bit different from that first time, and some of what you continue to do becomes part of a habit.  As a rather extreme example of the sentiment I am trying to express, one could pose the following question.  If you saw the Grand Canyon every day, would you feel the same sense of wonder after many years as you did on the first day.  Not to say that the sense of awe would go away, but I am sure that some of the emotional impact of the experience would tend to change over time, wouldn’t it.

This particular running experience I am talking about is most certainly not as grand as seeing the Grand Canyon, but it is more about the feeling you get when you are transported instantly into different state of mind every single time, even though you are repeating the routine frequently.  When it happens you forget about everything else instantly, and you are struck by a sense of wonder, maybe even ecstasy, that is hard to define.  And it is achieved without the benefit of external chemical stimulants.:-)  As a runner who explores a lot of spaces and always enjoys doing what I do, I have to say that there is something different going on in the head in this particular instance. Is it the endorphins on steroids, figuratively speaking?

As you can see, I have been pondering how one would characterize this kind of experience for some time.  I have also been thinking about the possibility of people having a somewhat similar experience in a different setting.  The only thing that came to mind is the state of mind of some people who enter a place of worship.  People enter a different place in their minds. Perhaps it is also possible to also get transported to this state of mind if one were to meditate.  I looked around on the Internet for the definition of a Holy place.  The most relevant description that I came across in this particular context was that a place becomes holy when it is specially linked to God.  If one continued along this thread of thought, you could perhaps get caught up in a contemplation of the nature of God, and your conclusion, if you had one, would of course depend on your point of view.  But I think that that particular thought process would be beside the point in this particular instance.  This is primarily about the state of mind that one tends to experience.  Perhaps I am in a Holy place when I run along these trails and have the experience I am describing.

I have a similar experience when running in a different part of the woods further along in this loop that I cover regularly, when the nature of my surroundings changes from that of the trees that are plentiful in this area to a vision of thin and tall evergreens all around me, a scene that is less common in these parts.  The mind is indeed transformed by the physical process that leads to the visual change, and perhaps it is that the process that is important to note in this context.

Having thought about this often enough, I decided to do an experiment to find out if it would be possible to capture the feeling that I have so far tried to express in words in pictures.  I carried my camera bag during one of my runs and made a game attempt at capturing the story with the camera.  Needless to say, pictures do not necessarily tell the tale, just as words themselves do not quite get to the heart of the matter.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

What Percentage of Food Produced in the United States Never Gets Eaten?

It feels rather strange to be writing about the topic of wasted food once again in such short order, especially since my attention span is short and usually tends to wander from random topic to topic.  But it turns out that events are happening in this domain that seem to line up with my attention being drawn to the subject.

A few weeks ago, after a lot of thought, I wrote a piece about the wastage of food, specifically bread, that I see at the food bank I volunteer at.  I called the piece The Economics of Wasted Bread.  Having not followed the subject too closely in the past, I felt that I might be a lonely voice in the wilderness speaking on the topic of food waste.  It turns out that I was wrong.

More recently I posted a blog where I provided a link to an article addressing food wastage. I had found the link in an e-mail from an organization dealing with social issues.  It turns out that there are other more capable people thinking about this subject.  If you track down the links in the article I pointed to, you will see that some of the numbers quoted in there come from a report by an organization called the NRDC. If you really want to dive into the weeds on this topic, you can read their complete report here.  The folks at NRDC tackle a variety of subjects of the “tree-hugging” variety, and having encountered them in a different life, I can say that the report ought to be taken with a grain of salt.  But  having said that, and also based on my own experiences, I have little doubt that the general tone of the report is correct and appropriate.

Whether you believe the numbers or not, the topic is in itself noteworthy, and the best person to present this topic in an entertaining manner is John Oliver.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i8xwLWb0lLY

If John Oliver is right, the concept I had of the “Expiry date” of products from the legal perspective was incorrect.  But I think some my thoughts on the subject were on the right track.

So, at the end of this blog, you should know NRDC’s answer to the question as to what percentage of food produced in the United States never gets eaten.  I find the numbers shocking.

PS.  A thank you to my daughter for providing the link to the video.

Digital in an Analog World (March 21st, 2014)

The digital paradigm is a key element of the technology and general thinking that drives our civilization today.  Information sharing in the electronic domain is for the most part achieved by breaking the information down into discrete, i.e, digital, levels for transmission and processing (except for a few remaining exceptions).  What we may not realize is that we also tend to use the digital paradigm almost everywhere else in our lives, outside of the technology domain, and this often times is the trigger to many of the issues we have in the world.  We tend to make absolute determinations about situations when in fact there are” levels” or grades of explanations and understandings about the realities, and a resulting ambiguity with a lot of what happens in the world.  By using the term “levels” I have already assumed a digital mode of thought, by postulating that there are some thresholds involved in the thinking process, when in fact the range of ideas and opinions that are available is a continuously variable analog process.

There are examples everywhere.  Consider definitions  used in the political world. We tend to use categorizations such as democratic, dictatorship, capitalist, socialist, etc.,  when in fact there is almost always more variation and ambiguity in the definition of political systems of particular countries being talked about, and mixed approaches to governing and addressing national issues.  But given a choice, the world will tend to categorize and compartmentalize.  When you do not want to think, names can be substituted and can perhaps be used as a basis for conflict.  When you think about it, having nations with boundaries is a completely artificial digital concept in itself.

Social arguments also tend to follow the digital paradigm.  In many cases is no compromise on topics ranging from religion to human rights (including women’s rights).  We are the owners of the one truth, we set our thresholds at one extreme, we cannot (or we refuse to) empathize with the other side, we want to set the rules, there is no room for compromise, and we are divided because of this.  It could be argued that some categorization is needed to provide a structure in society, without which there would be chaos. The challenge is to do this in a way that works fairly for everybody involved so that consideration of variety, compromise, and ambiguity are part of the process.  Why is it that the only outcomes of a court of law are that of guilty and not guilty.  Surely there are situations which are not that clear cut.  But we hate ambiguity.

Take an practical example from everyday city life.  We have traffic lights that almost eliminate the need for drivers of automobiles to think when arriving at a traffic intersection. Then we have speed limits (and other rules of the road) that are meant for safety (as if you are completely safe below a particular speed, and completely unsafe above it).  Perhaps we need some of these absolute rules because we cannot be trusted to deal properly with situations that are ambiguous, where we need to make judgment calls.  But rules still do not eliminate danger.  We are still capable of killing ourselves and others on the road.  And rules can also applied in a manner that leads to inefficiencies, such as the need to sit at traffic intersections waiting for the light to change for long periods of time when there is no cross traffic at all. Do we set more levels and boundary conditions and rules for decision making, or should we be smarter about our interactions at a traffic intersection?  Or perhaps we create autonomous vehicles and try to program the vehicles to respond to any possible scenario that can be thought of.  Is this even possible?

Categorization does also provide us with a tool that can be used to simplify the teaching process.  For example, look up information about the height of the atmosphere.  You will find that it is defined as being layered, with names for the different layers. In fact the nature of the atmosphere continuously changes with height and there are no clear layers, nor is there a clear boundary between the atmosphere and outer space.  Creating layers makes it simpler to be organized and to talk a common language to get an idea across, but it is essentially a concept in our minds.  To truly understand something, perhaps you have to embrace  ambiguity.  Consider the geographical construct of a shoreline.  Assumptions are made about clear lines delineating the land from the water so that we can try to make measurements, when in fact the delineation could be extremely complex and could be described beautifully using the concept of fractals  Here are some great examples (including that of the shoreline). (I actually think that the concept of fractals is something that is intuitive and can be taught to kids.)

When the digital mode of thinking it taken to its extreme, any form of dissent, disagreement, and attempts to argue with the rules, is not allowed.   (You will also be failed in your exams. 🙂 ) Are there folks who will argue that it is a good thing?

Things can be ambiguous in physics.  The uncertainty principle asserts that one cannot accurately know the location and momentum of a particle at the same time.  We also learn in physics that light has properties of both particles and waveforms, and there are experiments to illustrate both behaviors.   But we most probably started out learning only one of the behaviors in a school environment because it was probably more intuitive and easy to explain that behavior.  It is more difficult to comprehend things when you start talking about the subtleties.

In the world of digital communications, we find that communications becomes more efficient if are able to define more levels (of modulation), but we also learn that creating these additional levels creates more uncertainty and requires much more powerful processing (error correction) to resolve the uncertainty, until at some point we can approach Shannons capacity limit for the maximum possible information transmission rate in a noisy channel.  Perhaps, there is a similar dynamic in play in our minds on other matters, where creating more levels of consideration may be considered equivalent to embracing more uncertainty, but the ability to deal with this uncertainty requires more powerful processing in our heads. Dealing with ambiguity can lead to better solutions but it is harder to do.

You might say that there are moments in time when change is instantaneous.  Death is instantaneous. A nuclear explosion happens instantly.  How about the Big Bang?  From a human experience today, is it always the case that the experience of real life ends at the moment of death.  What if you are incapacitated and incapable of doing or feeling anything while your heart is still beating?  Some people might feel that this is as good as being dead.  Who is to decide? Consider also that time frames tend to be relative, or that the concept of time is itself relative.  There is actually a process related to a phenomenon such as the Big Bang, or even  a nuclear reaction, and processes do take some time, even if that time might seem to be extremely short. (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/18/science/space/detection-of-waves-in-space-buttresses-landmark-theory-of-big-bang.html)

Looking at the concept of time frames from a different angle, consider the fact that if one were to measure the lifetime of individual humans relative to the lifetime of the universe, our existence is of the order of the order of 1 out of about 100000000 units of time (if we live that long)!  Homo sapiens have only existed for much less than less than 1/10000th the lifetime of the universe, and “intelligent life” for much less than that. Our individual existences, and even the existence of humanity are but an instant if the observation is being made from a particular perspective.  But we think we know that our real lives are not instantaneous.  It all depends on your perspective.

We can use absolutes to get concepts across, to try to organize the workings of our human society, and perhaps even to find ways to move humanity forward (using whatever definition of humanity that works for us), but I think we are truly enlightened only if we are able to get even beyond these “absolutes” and wrap our heads around the reality of the ambiguity of almost everything, and incorporate this concept into the principles that we all individually live by.  Life is analog!

The article below is somewhat related.  The argument is being made that nothing is truly alive.  But I think the actual issue here is that we are trying to fit a digital concept of life and death into a world that is really analog.  It is a hard argument to make that life and death are not real for humans.
http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/13/opinion/why-nothing-is-truly-alive.html?ref=opinion
(Even if you do not read the article, click through to this website to see something unique.)

An Article about Limiting the Wastage of Food

Last week I wrote about how large quantities of bread sometimes go to waste at the food bank that I volunteer at, primarily because there is sometimes a massive oversupply of the product.  This seems to happen seemingly without an adverse impact on the organization that is responsible for this oversupply of product, and in spite of the wastage it causes.  Supply and demand seem to be completely independent factors in this kind of a situation in this economic model.

By pure coincidence, I recently got an e-mail from an online organization that does campaigns for social causes that addressed wastage of food all over the world.  This was one of the articles that was linked in the e-mail.  I am glad that I am not alone in thinking that there is a problem.

http://time.com/money/3913386/food-waste-feed-hungry/

One of the things that you notice when you are sorting out products in the food bank is the presence of the expiry dates on the packaging.   If I am not wrong, every packaged product for human consumption in the US has an expiry date.  The issue is that the passage of the expiry date does not necessarily mean that the product has gone bad.  Also, in spite of the fact that different types of product are subject to different manners of expiry, this “expiry date” concept seems to be applied and used in a uniform mindless manner in commerce.  Stores remove products on or before their expiry dates from the shelves even if they are good.  I expect that there are legal reasons for doing this, but sometimes removal of product before the expiry date might be done of the reason of managing appearances.  I also suspect that expiry dates are generated in a conservative manner, i.e., the dates that are used are themselves well ahead of the dates when the product is expected to go bad.  You try to be more flexible in terms of managing this aspect of handling products in a place like a food bank (as opposed to a store), but at the end of the day, there definitely are legal constraints to be followed everywhere.

In order to exist as a society we have to set up an bunch of rules that people agree to follow (or are forced to follow) for the betterment of the larger population.  Unfortunately, the use of rules has to involve the setting up of absolutes, and thresholds for certain types of behaviors and expectations, when in fact there is often a continuum, and some ambiguity, in what constitutes reasonable logical behavior and expectation.  I call this phenomenon digital behavior in an analog world.  I recently wrote something on this topic. I will perhaps add an entry to my blog on this subject.